August 2021

In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, sponsored by Blue Buffalo.

Please note the opinions in this blog are the expressed opinion of the author, and not directly endorsed by VETgirl.

Why you should be involved in community outreach

By Dr. Merrianne Burtch, DACVIM

Local community outreach is one place we can impact the lives of people and pets without the sense of burden we sometimes carry at work. We can use the pure knowledge of our profession without financial discussions, a challenging schedule, or specific patient outcomes.

My first opportunity for this was during my internship. Rotating through general practice, I met an Australian shepherd cross named Miles. He belonged to a homeless man and presented for lameness, with concern for being hit by a car. The cost of radiographs was beyond his means, so the diagnosis of pelvic fracture was made on a rectal exam. The owner admitted that his lifestyle was not conducive to the type of confinement Miles would need to heal. After some discussion, and tapping the generosity of the hospital management, Miles was surrendered to allow us to support him during convalescence. I placed an ad in the local paper and found Miles the perfect home at a rural Central Coast farm. Regularly, the new owners would call me up and bring Miles by for a visit over the following 12 years of his very full canine life. Using our veterinary compassion, a little extra time, and effort we were able to create a new Human-Animal bond and witness the beauty of it over years. Everyone involved also drew a connection to others through a common good. The successful collaboration of a team and the years of rewarding visits were worth it!

Stories where small actions made a big difference and a childhood in a low-income area with significant exposure to economic diversity influenced my choice to be active in the local community. It was the beginning of a journey that helped me realize the value we have as veterinarians to celebrate the human-animal bond through all its stages. The initial contact that creates the love, the courage to surrender a pet to better circumstances, particularly at the end of their life, and the value of that unconditional love we all need as part of our connection to the world.

In 2012, as I was treating a very challenging case of immune-mediated thrombocytopenia in a dog, her owner asked what we do when people cannot afford necessary care for their pets. I mentioned an idea that had been brewing for nearly 20 years to collaborate with veterinarians and create an organization to support low-income and vulnerable populations when their pets had fixable medical issues that they could not afford. She wrote a check to me and said… “make it happen”. Over the past 9 years, BirchBark has worked with central coast veterinarians to save the lives of pets and provided organized pet loss support and education webinars/lectures for all pet owners: https://www.birchbarkfoundation.org/

You can read a success story from a pet owner: https://www.birchbarkfoundation.org/success-stories-blog-3/2019/7/9/zoey.

How did this affect me and our community? Part of my discussion when talking with the community is to mention the value for all involved: the pet who has their medical issue addressed, the pet owner who can maintain the human-animal bond, and the veterinary staff who gets to see a pet treated, rather than euthanized for economic reasons. As a profession, seeing the Human-animal bond broken for financial reasons can impact us and create compassion burnout. As we started working with these vulnerable populations before and particularly during COVID, we had a glimpse into the unforeseen circumstances that can impact any life. From helping veterans keep their pets, or saving the life of a child’s pet, to helping someone whose closest and only source of unconditional love was their animal companion.

veteran playing with dog

My thoughts behind the foundation were using 5 parts of medical decision-making: Prognosis, financial, history, emotional, and physical. Pets must have a good prognosis to qualify for BirchBark Pet Aid gifts and if cost prevents the owners from considering treatment, then they cannot experience the other variables- their history with other pets, and how attached they are to this pet in their life and their capacity to care for that pet physically. Denying pet owners an opportunity to experience each of these steps in the decision-making fragments their process.

How does one make a difference in their community? I would not recommend starting with a nonprofit, it is a significant amount of work. I would consider merging other passions and finding a place in the community you can contribute. If you love children, reach out to elementary schools to come in and talk about being a veterinarian- you could change the course of a child’s life, and improve their appreciation and perhaps the health of their pets. You could discuss important health issues like pet obesity and spay-neuter in high school settings. You could use the non-verbal state of pets to discuss advocacy for inclusion, diversity, and equality in marginalized populations. If gardening is a passion- perhaps a talk on pet-friendly plants and what can be toxic. If you have a local radio show or newspaper, consider being a guest or writing a column that discusses a health issue you see frequently and steps for prevention. There is always volunteering at a shelter, Stand Down veteran support, and spay-neuter clinics that directly impact pets. One of my favorites is scheduling time to discuss One Health with dog training clubs or kennel clubs, the shared progress in medicine is fascinating to most audiences. This is not to say that you should fill your off days with tasks that take away free time and opportunities for peace- quite the opposite, the joy of sharing your knowledge and skills should be energizing and restorative. I recommend you give it a try- either by yourself or with a team from your hospital or Veterinary Medical Association. As our profession transitions to a higher number of corporate-owned veterinary hospitals, the opportunity to connect with your community as a human being not “the Veterinarian” allows the human connection to grow in ways we may never be able to adequately measure.

Dr. Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM is a small animal internist living in Central Coast California. She is a newly minted internal medicine Telehealth consultant at Animal Internal Medicine Consultants after more than 25 years in 24-hour hospital settings.

This VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog is sponsored by Blue Buffalo. Please note the opinions in this blog are the expressed opinion of the author, and not directly endorsed by VETgirl.

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